Editions War Part Two: 1e AD&D

Image used for review purposes.

With the release of 1e AD&D, it can be truly said that the Editions War had truly begun, as the nascent gaming community polarized either towards the more complete and ready to play Basic D&D, or embraced the more complex and nuanced 1e AD&D (or simply “AD&D” as it was known at the time). Regardless, TSR supported both simultaneously, and the two games diverged onto very different evolutionary trajectories.

History:

In a somewhat ironic twist, both Basic and 1e AD&D were released in the same year, 1977, both evolutions of OD&D, the Chainmail based fantasy rule set. The goal was to create a more complex, nuanced game than what was initially offered. However, only Basic was immediately playable. Why? Because the three core books to 1e AD&D wouldn’t be completed and released until 1979. This gave Basic a three year head start over 1e AD&D, and it was enough to clinch a permanent fanbase. 1e AD&D would run until 1989, when 2e AD&D would be released, and in its time, would be subject to one of the greatest, most pointless moral panics of the day, as various conservative Christian groups and others tried to link the game to everything from suicide to the occult. It shared this dubious honour with Basic D&D, and the fallout from it would ultimately reshape the game in the next edition. [1][2][3][4] This would also be the last edition that Gary Gygax would be involved with, as he would ultimately be forced out of TSR in 1985.

Components:

1e AD&D would set the pattern for all editions to follow. The base game was divided into three core books; The Player’s Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM). Without at least the PHB and DMG, the game is borderline unplayable without serious homebrew. To play the game fully, you require all three books. However, these three books in this edition are incomplete. To have non-homebrew gods for your clerics and characters, you needed the Deities & Demigods book. Then, rather hurriedly, TSR realized that they’d left out rafts of other information players and DMs alike wanted, like rules for wilderness and underground adventures, which caused the release of the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and Wilderness Survival Guides.

Score: 2/5 1e AD&D requires three separate books to play, and six to play well. This is still relatively compact, but the price offset nullifies that.

Rules:

Convoluted? Tortured? List and table heavy? Poorly laid out? All of these terms can accurately describe 1e AD&D. This was the edition that, more than any other (in my estimation), cemented rule knowledge as a key aspect the RPG player hierarchy. If it could have a table or list, or dice roll, it has it. The rules work, don’t get me wrong, but they are also limited (unless you get the supplementary books); it was not a friendly game for new players, and character deaths are shockingly common at lower levels (often before a player can learn) because of balance issues relating to the adherence to a level based system, and to how damage is dealt.

This edition also firmly embraced, and permanently established, the often derided fighter/magic user power dynamic problem; wherein a fighter is the dominant damage dealer to about level eight or 10, at which point they are eclipsed by the magic user. It is the linear line vs quadratic curve development issue. Depending on your stance this is or is not a problem.

Score: 2/5 1e AD&D’s rules are rough and unpolished; there is a reason why it spawned so much homebrew and so many unofficial edition fixes.

Character Options:

This is a real mixed bag in 1e AD&D. This edition took the step, maintained to the modern day in subsequent editions, of delinking race from class. This opened up a lot of options, as players were no longer as limited in what they could play. The key word there being “as”. Gygax and company approached the game with some strange ideas about “balance” and with a sociological essentialist theory towards racial capabilities and proclivities. [5] This means that only humans have unlimited class advancement, and can be (rules as written) any class. Also, it means that only human males can have the maximum normal stats (18/100 for strength, and 18 in all others). Everybody else has restrictions and caps on class selection, advancement, and stats. For people looking to play a long term game, that goes from level 1 to infinity, this pretty much makes playing anything but a human pointless, since you’ll become progressively less capable and effective after you hit your arbitrary level cap. The limit on human female strength was lifted in the revised release.

Score: 2/5 this edition closed more doors than it opened as far as character options went, and its poor attempts at balance, lack of thought towards what players that weren’t Gygax and friends might want, and “realism” add nothing of value to the game.

Base World:

This edition’s base world was Greyhawk, the world created by Gary Gygax and friends when they were developing the concept of D&D. It’s stamp remains to this day in the game in the spells section with names like Mordenkainen, Bigby, Otiluke, and Tenser; all of whom were original characters. The world is also not described in any of the base books, and required a separate purchase of the 32 page campaign setting.

Greyhawk is the blueprint for most fantasy RPG worlds. It’s composed of wildly differing cultures with widely differing technological levels all jammed together with no attention paid to how they would probably interact or coexist. In its defense, it was the first world of its kind, and would provide a wealth of material for future editions to build generic or homebrew settings, but on its own, it’s still a very odd duck.

Score: 2/5 Greyhawk is not a well built world, and wasn’t described in the base books. and it’s not much of a surprise that many DM’s past and present have opted to create their own worlds or use other campaign settings. Not even the Living Greyhawk Campaign by RPGA could save this place.

Diversity:

Low. In the PHB, the book most handled by all, there is one picture that has non-Europeans in it, and they aren’t even shaded in to show that they probably aren’t white. The DMG comes in at zero. The Greyhawk campaign setting describes several non-white populations, but that’s it. Depictions of women are equally lacking.

Score: 1/5 This edition is verging into nil for diversity, which makes its marketing campaigns that frequently showed men and women playing a bit less than authentic. It’s worth pointing out that none of this edition’s advertisements (that I’ve seen) feature any POC.

Availability:

Poor. Much like it’s contemporary, Basic D&D, time has taken its toll on this edition’s availability, and given differing numbers of books and modules printed and released, finding a full set of original books can get pricey, and fast. However, it too has a lot of its material available online from reputable and less reputable sources. It also has a persistent and active following that has created retro-clones, homebrew material and more.

Score: 2/5 The game just isn’t readily available anymore, but has a strong online presence.

Gameplay:

The gameplay for this edition is harsh and mercurial. The rules are scattered and not well written, and in areas, incomplete (defended by fans as being encouraging to players and DM’s to be “creative”). At low levels, it’s entirely possible to achieve accidental TPK (total party kill) in what should be relatively easy encounters. For players who opt to play demihumans, the game can get frustrating fairly fast when they hit level caps. It’s functional, but the reason for homebrew becomes very apparent very quickly. 1e AD&D is rough and unpolished in a lot of ways. This means that for modern gamers, there will be a lot of frustration involved until the inevitable homebrew solutions start rolling out.

Thoughts:

1e AD&D is a transitionary game to me. It’s lack of polish, amateur design, and strange assumptions and features all speak to a design that was being rushed out by people who were passionate about what they were doing, but not thinking ahead. This edition is an evolutionary bridge between OD&D and 2e AD&D. One of the key falling down points was that Gygax and his friends had a relatively narrow idea of how people would play the game, what sources they would draw inspiration from, and what they might do with it. [6] In effect, they made the game they wanted to play, to be played how they thought it should be played, within the context that they wanted to play. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it does mean that the game is self limiting in scope, audience, and potential.

Playing this game is good if you want a nostalgia trip, but time has not been kind to it. For its fanbase, that’s a lot of heresy, but it’s the reality of the situation. The game was a passion project by a group of nerds who wanted to share their game. But unlike later editions which took a more free-form approach to use, this one is best played (and from what I’ve seen, enjoyed) if you share the same biases, assumptions, and mindset of its creators.

Final Score: 11/30 1e AD&D has not aged well. It’s functional, but less so than it’s contemporary, Basic D&D, and can be frustrating to play.

Check Out the rest of the Editions War series here:
Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

5 comments

  • I have to disagree with you. I use Gygax AD&D rules to run my D&D game. I played AD&D in 1982-1987, then gave away all my gaming materials after college. Dumb. I know. In 2003 I started DMing again and got all of the AD&D, OD&D and BECM D&D rule materials up to Second edition (Complete Books Of). Core books cost me pennies on the dollar. Easily available.

    I am not a fan of Gygax as a human being, or of how he wrested something from the game scene and monetized it for himself, or his lack of foresight, or his megalomania, BUT his version of the game is the most comprehensive one, and one of the factors when I picked AD&D 1st as my base is that when you read Gygax Core books (PH & DMG), his philosophy and a vision for the game and for history becomes apparent.

    Inherent in D&D worldview is the racism of the colonial mindset that D&D inherited when it syncretized and amalgamated the world of JRR Tolkien and of the fantasy pulp writing that was the product of its time when it was written in the 20’s and the 30’s. The Herrenvolk and Untermenschen of the Nazi racist ideology have found themselves in D&D as the Demi-Human and Humanoid races. Proverbial Elves and Orcs. Most gamers are unaware of this, are not themselves racist, and you miss the forest for the trees when you look for non-European faces in the illustrations as a sign of lack of diversity and overlook the rest of the baggage. This was corrected in later editions, where players can play Goblins etc. and it’s up the DM to elevate them to the level of Humanity. Because of all that baggage, I thought of running a Humans only campaign, but then decided on a world that has multiple intelligent bipedal species competing with humanity with parallel evolutions evolving alien intellects in conjunction with other factors.

    Gygax DMG has two capabilities that all of the subsequent editions of AD&D Lack. One is a system of appendices, that allow a DM to create their own Dungeon adventures. With Gygax, you can roll your own. The second thing is that Gygax has codified the world of fantasy pulp fiction (Appendix M) into one convenient Tome, DMG, and using these compiled tables, Gygax has created an algorithm for generating stories set in that world, presented as “Dungeon” adventures. There is a brief Wilderness design section in DMG, but it is inadequate. Tom Moldway has a better algorithm for writing dungeon adventures in his Section 8 of the Red Book, but lacks the detail of the DMG. In the Blue Book he introduces a Wilderness Design System, that is more detailed, but not as coherent. DMG introduces the Hex-Crawl system. Wilderness Survival Guide does nothing to add to the writing on wilderness design, and there is a good reason why all of the writing on wilderness adventure design sucks. Anyway, Dungeoneer Survival Guide has some of the most advanced writing on D&D adventure design, introducing plot development and parallel plots etc. Gygax’s Oriental Adventure has soliod Gygax writing, where he shows you hot to run a sandbox campaign potentially without Dungeon adventures. You have to have imagination and write your own setting, but the knowledge is there. Compare Gygax to the hacks who were hired on the to write D&D after Gygax departure. Just look at the entire series of munchkin (gamer obsessed with empowering its player character) supplements, called the Complete Book Of, where you can find all sorts of the aspects of life in the 1990’s written into the game. Gygax had vision that these hacks didn’t.

    When Gygax wrote the game in the 1970’s, it was played by “wargamers”, which meant white, male, grad school types studying natural science, who had interest in military history and were Tolkien fans, who may or may not have been aware of colonialism in his writing, to the others outside the scene it was open knowledge and the reason that LOTR was not taken as serious literature. Whatever his shortcomings, Gygax was writing at their intellectual level. After Gygax left, first TSR tried making D&D everything to everyone in the Second Edition, and I’ve seen some truly original non-D&D campaigns that worked using the Second Ed rules. Then WOTC took the game and made it all things to all people with players wielding superhero-like abilities and illustrations appearing comic book -like. The reading level of the fame dropped to that of a 12 year old with a short attention span. The game became tied to miniatures and the frame of reference in most games became a single room as opposed to an entire labyrinth or the adventure itself. Different editions, different games, with the current D&D game being a pencil and paper version of the Diablo videogame.

    Why I picked Gygax AD&D? Because of its fantasy infrastructure: hundreds of its spells, treasures, magical items, monsters and weapons. AD&D has more complex game stats that versiosn that followed it (Weapon vs Armor tables). I wanted tactical realism where player tactical decisions had real consequences, and Gygax AD&D combat rules provided the best framework. OD&D had nothing in it, why bother with it, I can just make my own from scratch, and Basic etc, combat rules were too simple and made combat linear. By making it non-linear, I made it terrifying and dangerous to players, to a point where they stress. I never use any commercially available settings, because it is lackluster and players are familiar with it. I always do homegrown.

  • Pingback: Editions War Part One: Basic | POCGamer

  • Pingback: Editions War Part Three: 2e AD&D | POCGamer

  • Pingback: Editions War Part Four: 3/3.5e D&D | POCGamer

  • Pingback: Editions War Part Five: 4e D&D | POCGamer

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